Category Archives: Our Way

Sexing Juvenile Chickens

 When you’re breeding and raising chickens for dual purposes (for meat and for egg laying), there comes a time when you need to decide which purpose each bird will be geared towards.  Since males don’t produce eggs, it’s pretty clear who the layers will be and who the eaters will be.  It’s a bummer to be born male in the farming world.  Unless of course you are of exceptional breeding quality- then you’re rockin’ with the ladies.

We usually separate the two groups around 8 weeks old.  By then you can usually pick out the roosters from the hens and can see any extreme personality characteristics that you would want to weed out of your laying flock.  (We have a couple of young hens that might be put back out with the roosters if they don’t calm down a bit.  Hey, we’re a laid back family around here.  Gotta keep the energy level peaceful or you’re out of luck.)

The benefit to sexing the birds at this age is that they tend to blend in better with an established flock than older (or younger) birds do.  Juvenile birds are young enough to know better than to challenge the adult birds’ status and the adults tend to give them more wiggle room when they accidentally step into their space or try to eat first.  The term “pecking order” is popular for a reason- chickens are quite particular about their hierarchy and don’t like to have it challenged.

Although there are some obvious standouts in the crowd, it can be difficult to determine exactly which birds are male and which are female at 8 weeks old.   The roosters aren’t crowing yet and the hens are still about the same size as they boys.  But there are some identifying traits that you can pick out if you look closely.


The first thing I look at is the comb.  Males tend to have a much more prominent comb that tends to stand out like a red flag.  Likewise, the wattles (the red fleshy bits of skin under the chin) tend to be larger and brighter on roosters.  They serve to keep the chicken cool in hot temperatures and also to attract potential mates.  However, since we’re dealing with mixed breed chickens, and some have single combs and others have rose combs or pea combs (chicken genetics article coming soon!), we can’t always go by this trait alone.

Another very helpful part of the body to look at is the leg.  Roosters will have thicker, sturdier legs and in some breeds (such as the Barred Rock, below) they are even a different color from sex to sex.  If you’re still not sure, you can check for the start of a spur on the ankle.  Males will have a small nub that is the start of a spur (the long talons that are used in cock fights).

In some breeds (again, see the pair of Barred Rocks below) the males will have a brighter coloring than the females.  In the wild we see many species of birds that have brightly colored males and drab colored females.  It is thought that the bright color of males helps to attract mates while the dark color of the females camouflages them while sitting on a nest.  This is less true in domestic/farmed animals, but is sometimes selected for (as in sex-linked breeds) to make sexing at an early age easier.


Lastly, you can look at the plumage itself.  Males tend to have longer tail feathers that stick straight up when they strut.  (But again, this varies by breed.)  One of my favorite things to look for is one of the hardest things to see at such a young age.  The HACKLE!  As a fly tier, the hackle is the most valuable part of the rooster.  The saddle hackle is located on the side of the bird, just behind the wing.  The neck hackle is, of course, located on the neck.  Hens have shorter neck hackle that can be used in smaller fly patterns, but the roosters have the long, beautiful saddle hackle that is sought after for streamers and wet flies.  (Or for hair accessories, if that’s more your speed.)

There are a couple of other giveaways too if you’re paying close attention- like the muscle tone or heft of the body when you pick the bird up.  And although these guys aren’t quite crowing yet, they are getting close.  When I picked this champagne-colored guy up he made a deep throaty croak.  Bummer.  Rooster.  I’ve had my eye on this one (below) since the day he hatched, hoping it was a hen because he seems to be a mix of Buff Orpington and White Cochin.  Both are breeds known for their broodiness and good mothering ability.  I was sure this was our next great nanny.  Apparently not.

buff rooster 2014

So I did my best.  From what I can tell there are 14 hens and 15 roosters.  Amazing how that 50/50 thing works, huh?  I may have made a couple of mistakes.  Time will tell.  (That’s how we ended up with 2 roosters this past year- one boy didn’t start crowing until the week following D Day for the other roosters.  Brat.)  The hens moved into the barn with the established girls and met their parents for the first time.  Surprisingly we’ve had very little issues with them getting along.  Maybe it’s because they know they’re family (mmm…no, probably not).  Or maybe it’s because we have enough space for them to keep their distance if they like.  But I imagine it’s mostly due to the age that we introduced them and the breeds/personalities that we keep.  Good karma, I guess.

The hens getting used to their new living quarters.
The hens getting used to their new living quarters.
rooster pen 2014
The roosters enjoying the extra space in their pen now that the girls have moved out.

The boys are doing just fine all alone.  We wouldn’t be able to keep them all together forever, even if we wanted to, because they will eventually start picking fights and trying to prove their masculinity as they enter adolescence.  Boys.  When it starts to interfere with their quality of life they’ll move to the freezer.  Until then, they’ll enjoy a new patch of grass, weeds and bugs each day to keep them busy.

Except…maybe…this one.  Ain’t he purdy?

New rooster 2014



Chickens Need Hobbies Too

One of my big “things” in keeping animals is providing an environment where they can remain mentally stimulated and practice natural behaviors daily. Just as exercise and physical activity are good for our physical health, problem solving and using all of our senses is good for our mental health.

Think about how nutty you would go if you were stuck in a tiny room day in and day out, without enough room to stretch your legs or turn around. Then add, on top of that, nothing to read, no new sights to see, and your only social interaction was being stepped on or over by the other people squished into that tiny room with you. What kind of psychosis would that lead to?

Unfortunately that’s just the kind of life that laying chickens in a typical battery or large-scale factory farm experience. They never have the opportunity to enjoy life, and even worse than that, their caged lives are dragged on for over a year for laying hens. At least in meat birds (who live a similarly awful life, but also have to deal with severe physical ailments), their torment is over after just 6 short weeks of life.

Typical housing of egg laying chickens in a battery

But there is another way to raise chickens- the right way, in my humble opinion. And that way includes caring for their mental health as well as their physical health.

During the spring and summer months it’s pretty easy to provide a stimulating environment for your animals. Just give them access to the outdoors and they find plenty to do, all on their own. There is green grass to peck at, bugs to chase and dust to roll in. What more could a chicken want? But when it comes to the winter months, especially when the temperature is subzero and the snow piles up above their shoulders, we’re sometimes forced into keeping them confined to a smaller (more boring, but more comfortable) space than they’d like. When the air temperature is above the single digits, we typically leave the top half of the barn door open so that they can fly up and out if they like, but they rarely do. Chickens are pretty wimpy when it comes to snow or rain.

Winter barn
The yard goes unused when the snow reaches halfway up the barn door.

So what do you do to manage their sanity? It’s actually pretty easy. The answer comes from asking the right question- “what would the animal typically be doing, if given the choice?” For chickens it’s probably scratching around, looking for food. A close second might be dust bathing or, if the opportunity presented itself, mating. That’s about it. No rocket scientists in the chicken world. But hey, who am I to judge? Whatever floats your boat.

If foraging for food is what you like to do in your spare time, then that’s what we’ll let you do. Any time our chickens are indoors for any length of time (whether it is their choice or ours) we set up a mini treasure hunt for them in their pen. At least twice a day we toss some kitchen scraps into the straw so that the hens have to “hunt” for their treat. Today we just so happened to have some black beans in the refrigerator that needed to be used up, so that’s what they got. (It’s just a nice side benefit that they look like little black beetles hiding amongst the roughage. Maybe that will train them to be Japanese-Beetle-hunting-assassins come summertime- I can’t stand those things!) But since chickens are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything that people do. When we’re lacking kitchen scraps, they get a scattering of cracked corn to keep them busy.

Chickens scavenging
Our chickens scavenging for kitchen scraps dispersed in straw.

Another nice winter treat is a bowl of whey left over from cheese or yogurt making. Over the summer, the pigs drink most of the whey that turns up as a byproduct of making cheese from our raw goat’s milk. But during the winter, the chickens have fewer competitors on the farm and they could use the extra protein boost, so they’re the lucky winners of the white gold.

Chickens eating whey
Fresh whey left over from making cheese from our raw goat’s milk is a big treat for the flock.

We also keep one corner of the pen loose with sand/dirt so that they can bathe when they feel the urge. And of course our resident rooster keeps the ladies busy. I’ll spare you from an image of that.

This same philosophy can be applied to any animal that needs added mental stimulation. Zoo keepers and aquarium staff have long been enriching the environments of captive wild animals in order to provide more humane care for them. Octopuses, for example, are often fed out of Kong toys in aquariums to simulate their natural hunting and feeding behaviors. (Check out this article on Pandora, The National Zoo’s octopus, who just recently passed away holding onto her favorite Kong toy.)

But why stop at wild animals for environmental enrichment? Are domesticated animals any less worthy of the opportunity to behave naturally? They may have weaker drives than their wild counterparts, but that should only serve to make it easier for us to entertain them.

To me, having a healthy animal requires more than just adequate nutrition and loads of medication. It’s a whole package deal. And that package is at least 50% psychological. Let’s start giving that other half some attention too.

 This post was shared on The Homesteaders Blog Hop